By Ijeoma Oluo
Honestly, I did not want to read about race right now, let alone talk about it. I wanted to keep reading the historical mysteries and romances that have kept me moderately distracted during this pandemic, but they started to feel tiresome, and I knew that I couldn’t ignore this national dialogue any longer.
When faced with all the recommended readings, So You Want to Talk About Race was an easy choice, since I already follow Ijeoma Oluo on twitter and instagram, where she is very smart, funny, honest, and occasionally posts beautiful makeup demos. I’d been meaning to get to her book for longer than I like to admit.
Also, white complacency is insidious! I’ve done enough reading over the years that I’m more or less comfortable with terms like “social construct” and “intersectionality,” but this also means that I too often fall into the mental trap of thinking that I don’t need to do any of this recommended reading.
And boy, did Oluo school me fast! She writes So You Want to Talk About Race in the same accessibly conversational tone that she uses in her social media, so I’d initially thought it would be a pretty quick read. It came as a shock the first few times I had to set down the book for a day so that I could think through everything she had laid on me in the chapter I’d just read.
I can’t resist sharing a few passages that I highlighted:
From the chapter “Is it really about race?” on how our country’s economics is intrinsically connected to race:
Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less.
From “What is racism?:”
Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change….
We have to remember that racism was designed to support an economic and social system for those at the very top. This was never motivated by hatred of people of color, and the goal was never in and of itself simply the subjugation of people of color. The ultimate goal of racism was the profit and comfort of the white race, specifically, of rich, white men. The oppression of people of color was an easy way to get this wealth and power, and racism was a good way to justify it. This is not about sentiment beyond the ways in which our sentiment is manipulated to maintain an unjust system of power.
(This recalled for me Why Are They Angry With Us? which explores how many brutal acts of racism occur out of a cognitive dissonance in service of capitalism.)
Olua doesn’t shy away from how very large and insidious racism is, entwined in just about every part of our society. Her book gives an introduction to thinking about racism from a number of different angles: personal, professional, societal, economic, linguistic, and more, and I’m not going to lie, it is daunting. She balances it, though, with periodic pep talks for her black readers that they deserve to be comfortable in their spaces, whether that means speaking out against racism or maintaining personal boundaries, and to her white readers that even just learning and reading are important, and that small incremental changes lead to major societal shifts.